In Latin there is a bit of doggerel that goes like this: omne trium perfectum (“every set of three is perfect or complete”). In English it is referred to as the “rule of three” or “good things come in threes.” Examples could be given from world history (think, the Big Three in World War II) and literature (think, Tolkien’s trilogy). But especially does this rule hold true for Reformed believers in our Three Forms of Unity. The Holy Spirit has entrusted to us a precious triad, a confessional triumvirate: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt.
There is a wonderful unity among this trio. Not only is there a unity between them from the point of view of content, but there is also a historical connection. The Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism were instrumental at the Synod of Dordt (1618-19). We can see this in two ways: first, the two earlier confessions played a part in the doctrinal controversy as a whole; and second, their content was examined and affirmed by the Synod.1
The confessions in the controversy
In the first place, let us briefly examine the part that the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism played in the controversy at large.
Since the Belgic Confession (1561) had its origin in the Lowlands, it always had an important place in the hearts of God’s people there. But so also did they have a great appreciation for the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), though it came out of the German Palatinate. Shortly after it was written, the Heidelberg Catechism was translated into Dutch, and it was adopted by several classes and provincial synods in the Netherlands in subsequent years.
In the years leading up to the Synod of Dordt, however, trouble began to brew in the churches. There were ministers who deviated from the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. Some refused to sign their names to the two confessions at all, while others subscribed but did so tongue-in-cheek, continuing to preach and teach contrary to the confessions. At the time, very little was done to hold such men accountable.
It was in this context that Jacob Arminius rose to prominence. He first served as a pastor in Amsterdam, and then in 1602 he was appointed to serve as a professor of theology in Leiden. Like others, he also expressed misgivings about the confessions. For example, in 1593, Arminius called into question the teaching of Article 16 of the Belgic Confession on the doctrine of eternal election. He claimed that the language of the article was too difficult to explain.
After his death, his followers—called Arminians or Remonstrants—took up the cause he had championed. They continued to raise suspicions about the orthodoxy of the confessions. In 1610, they made a formal request for a synod to be convened at which the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism could be revised.
The Reformed refused to be swayed by this thinking. Rather than questioning the orthodoxy of the confessions, they consistently used the clear language of the confessions to refute the false doctrines of the Arminians. The Reformed also called for a national synod to be held, not to revise the confessions but to expose the Arminians’ deviation from the confessions.
The response of the Arminians was subtle. Rather than openly rejecting the teaching of the confessions, they followed their namesake’s lead by arguing that the quotations from the creeds were not clear.
These troubling circumstances in the churches eventually led to the Synod of Dordt being convened. Once the Arminians appeared, the Synod demanded of them that they present their objections to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism in writing. The Arminians stalled. Up to this point their objections to the creeds had been expressed verbally or only in general terms in writing. On three different occasions the president of the Synod, Johannes Bogerman, ordered them to submit to the Synod and present their objections. Eventually they did but, rather than honestly stating their objections, they presented them in the form of questions. According to Gootjes, “This allowed the Remonstrants to bring forward their objections without having to state their own opinions.”
These questions were given to two committees of pre-advice. The objections to the Heidelberg Catechism were naturally given to the delegates from the Palatinate. And the objections to the Belgic Confession were placed in the hands of Dutch delegates. Based on the advice of these two committees, the Synod rejected the objections of the Arminians.
Later, when the Synod drafted and adopted the Canons, they still had the earlier two confessions in view. Although the Canons has become a third confession equal to the other two, that is not how the delegates viewed their work. They saw their work not as the drafting of a third confession but simply as explaining and expanding upon the truths set forth in the other two. The Formula of Subscription bears this out when it speaks of “the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod or Dordt.”
The confessions at the synod
The second way in which the Synod of Dordt is related to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism is through the Synod’s addressing the content of these confessions.
The Synod did not spend a great deal of time on the Heidelberg Catechism. It did not revise the text of the Catechism at all. It did, however, make a decision reaffirming the practice of preaching weekly through the Catechism. There were ministers who were negligent in carrying this out, and there were church members who opposed it in the interests of their leisure activities on Sunday afternoons. The Synod decided that ministers must preach through the Catechism on Sunday afternoons, “even if the ministers in the beginning have to preach only for a few hearers, yes, if only for their own families.”
A great deal more time was spent on the Belgic Confession. The Synod treated the Confession in two significant ways. First, the Synod declared that the Confession is a faithful summary of the Word of God. Because the Confession was taking heavy fire from the Arminian camp, particularly Article 16 on election, the delegates wisely reaffirmed it and instilled confidence in their people’s minds with regard to it. What is worthy of note is that this decision was taken on April 30, while the foreign delegates were still present. According to Gootjes, “The delegates urged the Dutch theologians to stand by this orthodox, pious and straightforward confession till the day of Christ’s return.” The fact that the foreign delegates also affirmed the Confession means that it was not just a Dutch confession but a catholic creed.
The Synod addressed the Belgic Confession on a second occasion. After the foreign delegates had departed, the Dutch delegates took up the matter of a minor revision of the text of the Confession. This was necessary because there was no uniform text to be found, but rather there were many different versions with varied wordings in circulation. The delegates wanted one, uniform text to be used in the churches. This was not the major doctrinal overhaul desired by the Arminians, but a minor revision in wording and clarity.
The delegates labored carefully over the revision. Even though the foreign delegates were no longer present, some had given their written opinions on a revision of the Confession prior to their leaving, and these were carefully consulted. Eventually, the final text was approved in both French and Dutch. These official versions were published in 1619, shortly after the Synod had adjourned, and an unofficial Latin version appeared the next year.
The Synod addressed the substance of both the Bel- gic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism in one other way: through the drafting of a Formula of Subscription. Earlier classes and provincial synods had required that officebearers subscribe to the confessions, but there was no official standard for the churches as a whole to follow. This was an important issue in the minds of the delegates, because the Arminians were arguing for a loosening of subscription requirements. In response, the Synod adopted a Formula of Subscription for ministers, professors of theology, and school masters. The subscription of elders and deacons was not addressed, but was left up to the individual classes to enforce their subscription. In later years, the Formula would be modified to apply to elders and deacons as well.
The Formula that was adopted included four main requirements. First, it demanded that officebearers express their complete agreement with the teaching of the three confessions. Second, it required that they promise to teach and defend these truths. Third, the Formula compelled them to reject all errors that militate against the truths of the confessions. And fourth, it obligated them to report any doubts they might have with regard to the confessions and to be willing to submit themselves to an examination of their convictions if such would be required.
By means of these decisions, the Synod was determined not only to eradicate the Arminian error but also to safeguard orthodoxy in the churches.
The confessions in conclusion
There is much that could be drawn from this history, but I will limit my points to three, brief ones.
First, the Three Forms of Unity are a safeguard for Reformed churches. They have determined for us, once and for all, what is biblical and Reformed and what is not. By means of the creeds, the church is preserved in her purity and is able to ward off the false doctrines that threaten her. There is safety and confidence for the Reformed minister when all his preaching and teaching is done within the bounds of the confessions. There is safety and confidence for the Reformed believer when he knows that what he and his family are being fed is within the bounds of the confessions.
Second, the Three Forms of Unity promote true, beautiful unity. By means of the confessions, the church of the present is united with the church of the past. The Protestant Reformed Churches and other faithful, creedal churches are united with the church of Dordt. By means of the confessions, the church in one part of the world is also united with God’s people in other parts of the world. This was beautifully displayed at the Synod of Dordt itself, when the delegates from different lands all affirmed their mutual commitment to the creeds. Today we see the same, when God’s people from different lands, languages, cultures, and backgrounds stand together in mutual commitment to the Reformed confessions.
Third, all this ought to stir up within us a renewed appreciation for and commitment to the Three Forms of Unity. One of the great dangers that confronts us presently is the danger of dead orthodoxy. This is the sin of which Jesus warned, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8; cf. Is. 29:13). The danger is that, though we have this rich confessional heritage, it means very little to us in actuality. There are many who celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordt this year and yet are not committed to the truth of the Canons and the other Reformed confessions. God forbid that this ever be true of us. May He continue to grant us a holy zeal and deep love for the rich confessional heritage that is ours.
1 The information that follows is drawn largely from the following three sources: Nicolaas Gootjes, The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007); Richard De Ridder, The Church Orders of the Sixteenth Century Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1987); and H. H. Kuyper, De Post-Acta, of Nahandelingen van de Nationale Synode van Dordrecht (Amsterdam: Hoveker & Wormser, 1899).